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The Cops

Why Did the NYPD Abruptly Clear Out Washington Square Park?

The party mayor's anti-party agenda comes for the City's most vibrant public space—and the unhoused people the Adams administration has failed to help.

12:01 PM EDT on August 23, 2022

A Parks Department truck hauls confiscated property from Washington Square Park on Friday. (Stacie Joy)

For over a year, members of Washington Square Park Mutual Aid have set up tables in one of Manhattan’s most popular parks on Friday evenings—food is served and haircuts are offered as part of the boisterous, jubliant post-pandemic iteration of Washington Square. This past Friday, the organization planned to co-host a “sweep defense” workshop, teaching New Yorkers how to prevent the NYPD and Sanitation Department from dismantling the public spaces where houseless New Yorkers have temporarily settled. This spring, 733 sweeps conducted over six weeks resulted in 39 people finding temporary housing; even the New York Post considers the program a failure, considering how few safe options unhoused people have in Eric Adams’s New York.  

But around 6:30 p.m., before the event could begin in earnest, according to three people present, dozens of cops descended on the park to clear it. They arrested one member of Washington Square Park Mutual Aid and ejected several unhoused people, trashing their personal belongings. According to people in the park, there was no warning the sweep would take place, a deviation from the typical practice of providing 24-hour notice, which is a nod to how obviously destructive it is to suddenly clear an encampment and seize property. The confrontation became something close to a stampede. “It all happened really rapidly,” said Derrick Demaria, a member of the mutual aid group. “There were two gangs of cops patrolling the park. It was very, very bizarre.”  

City Hall, the Department of Sanitation, and the NYPD did not return requests for comment by press time.*

In March, Mayor Eric Adams, a walking conflict of interest, announced a citywide crackdown on homeless encampments located across the city. A task force of sanitation workers, NYPD officers, and outreach agents assembled to systematically dismantle the places where unhoused people took shelter across the five boroughs. “Too many of our neighbors are experiencing homelessness,” Adams said in April, upon the announcement of a $171 million investment in “street outreach.” He continued, “They deserve safety and they deserve support.” The mayor is reportedly so obsessed with the issue he keeps track of encampments on a shared Google Doc. 

Five months later, Adams’s head of social services is under investigation for lying to City Hall about an alleged violation of shelter protocol. The shelter system is so overcrowded the administration declared a state of emergency on August 1, a state of affairs Adams has blamed on asylum seekers but which could be more accurately sourced to years of anti-poverty sentiment and legislative neglect. But even as homeless shelters overflow, the Adams administration's task force has continued to trash encampments. In April, a seven-hour standoff between protestors hoping to defend an East Village camp resulted in seven arrests. According to people present at the time, there were at least 50 cops at the scene but only one outreach worker—a pretty good metaphor for what the Adams administration has actually accomplished in its crusade to get houseless New Yorkers “safety” and “support.” 

Early in the anti-encampment campaign, Adams noted the task force would provide a 24-hour notice before it moved in, a promise that appears to have been neglected in Washington Square Park last week as NYPD officers from the vice squad and local precincts marched into the park. (As all three people Hell Gate spoke to told us, these weren’t the police who typically patrol the area.) 

And while Washington Square Park isn’t exactly a tent city, its northwest corner—which one person referred to as the “less gentrified” section—had become a temporary home for New Yorkers with no safe place to go. According to members of the mutual aid group, around 6:30 on Friday evening, groups of about a dozen NYPD officers from the vice squad appeared, patrolling the park and silently standing in front of the group’s table. Shortly after, a woman shouted that officers were arresting her son; when members arrived, they saw what two people described as officers in “tactical” uniforms aggressively sweeping the area and shouting orders to clear the park. “There was a shock quality to it,” said Griffin Hansbury, who has been attending Washington Square Park Mutual Aid's events since their inception over a year and a half ago. “They swept the area, took people’s belonging, and put them in a garbage truck.” 

The NYPD says it only has record of one arrest in Washington Square Park on Friday night, ostensibly the mutual aid member who was filming police, though the group's members say they saw two other people being detained. In March, Gothamist reported on emails indicating that wealthy donors to the Washington Square Park Conservancy, like Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, were putting pressure on the Parks Department to address the “crisis” at Washington Square Park—meaning the vendors and skateboarders and revelers who have made the park a particularly vital public space over the last few years. 

“The police have been particularly aggressive lately,” said Hansbury. “I see this as part of the reclaiming of the park for the wealthy homeowners who live nearby, for the tourists, for the NYU students coming back whose parents are paying tuition.” 

Hansbury said the sweep coincided with recent arrests of buskers in the park, and the shutting down unlicensed vendors for selling art: “It’s all part of the same strategy to return the park to what it was prior to 2020.”

Updated (8/23/2022, 5:30 p.m.): Following the publication of this story a spokesperson for the mayor, insisting on speaking on background and on not being quoted directly, said the raid took place without warning because city officials had determined the conditions constituted a threat to public safety that rose to the level of an emergency.

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